Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rage Against the Human-Powered Machine?

Or just rage? Or just lack of basic civility? I wrote an editorial for our local bike advocacy blog some time back regarding the everyday rudeness that bicyclists endure. At the time, several prominent examples of rude behavior generally by celebrities and politicians were in the news. Pundits and the 24/7 "news" networks seized on the sudden epidemic of rudeness and wondered if we had lost our basic sense of civility. My point was: yes, but it's not sudden, and it's not confined to high-profile events. It happens every day, especially to easy targets like people acting "differently" (i.e. riding bicycles).

Well, that's a pretty negative view of things, isn't it? I've been trying to be more positive about things like this, so I wanted to revisit the issue in a different forum. I just finished reading P.M. Forni's Choosing Civility (St. Martin's Griffin, 2002), which is just horribly written and not at all well-conceived, but has some interesting ideas. Although Forni stays positive about the potential for civil behavior (or, one might even go so far as to say overly fussy and fastidious behavior), the main point I took away from the book is that most people are not even basically civil to one another.

Okay, this seems to be getting worse and not better, doesn't it? Bear with me.

Instead of focusing on what people aren't doing to respect each other's space, time, and effort, let's focus on why we consider these things important. Most of us, myself included, who think people generally are less civil than they should be, tend to say things like, "nobody listens anymore" or "why doesn't anyone yield to pedestrians anymore?" The assumption is that people used to do these things, and now they don't, and we're the worse for it. But guess what? People have always not listened to and not respected the people around them. Always.

Rather than bash our heads against the wall because of all the incivility we see around us, and rather than holding grudges against entire groups of people (i.e. bicycists, drivers, etc.), I think the main thing we should all be concerned about is whether or not we as individuals can evaluate our actions at the end of every day and feel good about what we either did or did not do. It's not that the world is more uncivil or disrespectful now than it was back in the good ol' days, it's just that we now approach incivility in a clinical fashion, attempting to determine causes, effects, and cures. My arguement is that it's not a discrete social problem and it's not a symptom of larger issues, it's just part of living in proximity to other humans. If you can take individual responsibility for how you do that, then The Big Scary Problem of Incivility suddenly dissipates into a series of individual actions and choices. And that's where the changes can be made.


  1. You make some very good points that I agree with. Every time I grumble about drivers (and bicyclists), I realize that I am as much of the problem as the drivers. For example one time as an exercise I wrote down the number of positive vs. negative road interactions and found that I tend to fixate on the negative experiences exclusively. This is more indicative of my own personality than anything else.

    I happen to think that for the most part we are living in the best possible time in history. Obviously this is with the (limited) knowledge I have of things past.

    Compared with the old me, in general I don't get as angry as I used to and usually stew on incidents for no more than a few minutes.

    Although the L.A. case of the Doctor deliberately hurting the cyclist has given me the chills since so many other people came out of the woodwork with their own revenge fantasies they'd like to do to bicyclists.

  2. It was the best of times,it was the worst of times.Positively!

  3. I think you are focusing on the negatives. Overwhelmingly (like 999 times out of 1000), my motorist interactions are positive, or simply businesslike. I think if you keep track, you'd find yours is similar. Jerks, however, stand out in the memory which makes it seem a lot worse. Keep track tomorrow and see if you don't agree. Actually, you'll PROBABLY just have nice interactions in any given day so it may take a few to get a good count.

  4. I don't think I am focusing on negatives at all. In fact, I'm certain that 99.9% of the interactions (or non-interactions) I have with motorists are either positive or completely unremarkable one way or another. But I'm not keeping count of any of them. My point is actually quite a positive one: there is no epidemic of rudeness or incivility, only individual actions that people need to be accountable for, and I'm speaking in a catholic sense, not just about drivers and bicyclists.

  5. Reading it again, in a catholic sense, Amen. Every day, after the ride concludes, I review to see how I could have made better choices. Some of the bigger ones, I blog on and commenters add insight.


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